Fraser Valley developer lifts Ski Idlewild founders’ spirits with small piece of the past
August 27, 2009
The paint is chipped, the seat boards faded, and its iron frame has seen years of wind, sun and storm.
Yet one glance at its appearance, and Fraser Valley long-timers are transported to the first time they wore awkward planks called skis and boarded an aberrant flying chair.
“I’m sure I rode chair number eight at some point in my life,” said Walter “Buz” Koelbel Jr., president of the Rendezvous Development company, Koelbel and Co., that recently acquired a 688-acre expansion in Winter Park including former Ski Idlewild terrain.
On Wednesday, Koelbel presented to Ski Idlewild’s original owners Dwight and Jean Miller the eighth chair in the lift fleet, left over from the family-friendly, family-run ski business the couple bestowed on the Fraser Valley starting in 1957.
The Millers’ Idlewild Lodge and Guest Ranch boasted more forgiving terrain for beginners “and wives” than what at the time was offered at the Denver-run Winter Park ski mountain.
By 1960, Dwight Miller had surveyed a half-mile slope of the rise on his land, cleared the pines and poured concrete foundations for a double-chair Pomagalski lift that replaced the rope system.
“It was the first chair lift west of Berthoud Pass,” said Jean.
When Dwight helped to first assemble it, he said, he discovered the instructions were all in French. Incidentally, the chairs were almost installed upside down.
The chair lift was a luxurious expense the couple could hardly afford. “We were so broke, we could hardly pay attention,” Dwight said.
“And you know why that was?” Koelbel said. “You gave us the benefit of skiing for only $3.25 cents a day.”
Learning to ski
Koelbel learned to ski at the Millers’ Ski Idlewild hill with his two sisters and brother.
Gifting the lift chair to the Millers some 49 years later, he said, in many ways was like coming “full circle.”
Industrious individuals in Fraser Valley’s history have long created places allowing families and friends to “come and gather,” he said – like the stagecoach stop that is now Cozens Museum, to the Millers’ ski area, to the future extension of the Rendezvous vacation home development on that same ground.
Koelbel’s own grandparents had the cattle ranch and family retreat Byers Peak, where Koelbel’s parents Gene and Walter Koelbel brought the family for summer and winter recreation. The Koelbel family history in the Fraser Valley dates back to 1913 when Koelbel’s grandfather Carl Norgren came to the area and eventually became a logger.
For young Buz, the Fraser Valley was a place that sparked large family gatherings while the surrounding hills beckoned hiking, jeeping and skiing at Idlewild.
The Millers originally paid $10,000 for their 160 acres where Dwight would build the Idlewild guest lodge out of solid cedar planks, with a bar and dance floor. Later, as the couple noticed ski tourists gravitating to fancier accommodations, the couple installed a year-round outdoor pool so guests could go from cold ski to warm swim in the same day.
“It took as much coal heat to heat the pool as it did the Lodge,” Jean said.
Idlewild attracted a clientele of families wanting a kid-friendly slope, and the Millers were the first to introduce the use of Ski-doos for first-aid purposes.
Jean would often carry the couple’s youngest daughter Sarah on her back while skiing. The Miller children, Martha, James, Jack and Sarah, all learned to ski at Idlewild.
But by 1965, the Millers decided to sell in order to capture their own family time, often dominated by the popular business.
Ski Idlewild, Dwight said, “was the best beginner area in Colorado.”
“We plan to make a swing out of it,” said Jean of the family’s newest possession from the past.
She brainstormed where they would locate it at their Tabernash home, perhaps down by Ranch Creek where her husband likes to sit near the water, or perhaps in the family’s gazebo.
“We’re pleased indeed to have a chair from that lift,” she said, “to be able to sit and think how it was. … We feel like it was a unique part of our lives.”
– Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603 or e-mail email@example.com.